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A Staunch Defender of Human Rights

A Staunch Defender of Human Rights

Sentinel Digital Desk

Bhavyashree Chivukula

In conversation with Hasina Kharbhih, the human rights activist who has saved more than 70,000 women and children from human trafficking and now provides them with a safe space for sustainable development and livelihood in her Impulse NGO Network

  1. Please tell us about your childhood.

Ans: I was born in the year 1971 in Shillong. As a young girl, I did my schooling in Saint Joseph school up until matriculation. After completion of my board exams, I went to Lady King's college for my higher education. As a child, I was more inclined to extracurricular activities than to academics. I remember I would participate in all kinds of extracurricular activities and enjoyed every bit of it. Today when I look back, I think I put my heart and soul into different activities in school week and was an average student academically. Subsequently, I did my post graduation in human resource development from Indian Institute of Management and Sales which had two centres, one in Calcutta and the other in Shillong.

  1. You have been a social activist for 30 years now. What inspired you to work on social issues?

    Ans: Back in school, I was very active with my leadership training services in school activities which involved young students to participate in development work during weekends, supporting development and expansion in our neighbourhood and in our town. We were more focused on how we work on promoting our weekends by working on development by encouraging and increasing empathy levels. After passing out of class 10, the leadership training services was not available in my college so I decided to set up an alumni called the 'LTS' alumni which later gave birth to the organisation which is the Impulse NGO Network and this is the 27th year running since its inception. That was the time when I contacted my school friends to join me and work as alumnus every weekend with street children, or in shelter homes, work for the eradication of poverty in our neighbourhood, etc. which led me to the understanding that there is so much in the community that could be done.

That was something which got me first hand on what could be done more. The idea that validates me is that social work doesn't always have to be charitable, development work is not something that has to be done by people only when they retire; young people can also be the change makers. With an aspiration that young people too can be the change makers, me and my group of friends decided that we will continue our leadership training service activities which is more social in its orientation. The LTS taught me the values and principles of leadership engaging to work in a team, some chose different paths but I continued this journey and an alumni became an organisation.

  1. You have dealt with all kinds of people in your journey. Did you face any difficulties in your personal life? If yes, would you like to share your experience?

Ans: I think working in the sector of addressing human trafficking issues, we have to remember that human trafficking is a crime involving multibillion dollar businesses and when one disrupts the business which involves people who are in the pedestal of engaging crime, challenges always come along with it. In my journey itself, I faced a lot of challenges. There was a time in my life back in the year 2008 when we were intervening with cases of human trafficking where girls from the Northeast were trafficked for service industries, especially in the airlines. We received cases where girls were trapped in the whole cycle of sex tourism, especially from the escort aspect. When we intervened, I was threatened, I was attacked. I was even attacked outside the court and subsequently the same year while working on the rat hole mining scenario, where many children below the age of 18 years were engaged and trafficked for labour from our neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, I found that these kids were brought into the circuit of bonded labour, which by law is an exploitation. We took up the issue from the intervention stage to the awareness stage and finally to the research component, wherein we also navigated intervention by different commissions in the country. The last resort was to create a media campaign to spread awareness and receive responses from the different communities, it was when I was attacked, my office was ransacked, I went through a series of attacks and end result was my driver's death when a truck collided with our car. These were a series of attacks that happened in the course of one year and the last threatening point was the collision of vehicle halfway while I was travelling from Guwahati to Shillong as a way to tell me not to continue the intervention of engagement of Children in rat hole mining. This was also one of the challenging points in my life when I realised that when I stop the powerful people, the ones who are a part of mafia and revenue making, I was putting my life at stake too. I did manage to save myself but my driver lost his life. These adverse challenges have been all along in my time with impulse NGO network. It has not been an easy journey, it took me some time because our organisation is a young team of leadership and when someone leaves the organization, it shakes everyone involved in the organisation.

To be able to battle these at a personal front as well as a professional front was building my inner strength at ensuring that we remain safe. At the same time, Asian Rights Hon Kong and the Front Line Defenders took up our urgent appeal for my life when they questioned the Government of India on the safety of a Human Rights Defender stating that they'd be responsible if I am not being protected. This journey did take a toll on me but today I am more careful and having international supporters who validate our campaign helps. In 2014, we filed a PIL in the National Green Tribunal and got the mining industry closed in Meghalaya. Nevertheless this is a battle we continue to fight. Safety though remains our priority now.

  1. Do you want to discuss on how did the police play its role in this process?

Ans: With the sequence of threats that I had been receiving, whether it was telephonic threat or my office being ransacked, all of that happened in 2008 – 2009 and I have more than 15 FIRs filed for every incident that took place. We filed an FIR after every incident so that the investigation takes its course. The series of attacks didn't happen in one single day, they happened throughout the year. After my driver's death, I realised that these attacks were threatening to stop me from pursuing my way forward.

  1. What kind of political and social challenges come across during the course of saving lives?

Ans: For us we work a lot with the stakeholders. In the course of the last 26 years, we engaged the government, especially the law enforcement to address the issue in the rescue. We did succeed as an organisation to be a part of the larger network organisation in the country where the Ministry of Home Affairs set up anti-human trafficking units in all States of the Country with our primary role being focussing in the States of Northeast. We helped in engaging the enforcement to be more sensitive in addressing rescue and by rule of law support along with our State partners when any cases are being reported in human trafficking. Nevertheless, we have been cautious in the way we undertake the joint operations because we realise there is massive corruption in this sector that at times if any information gets leaked, the corrupted aspect destroy the evidence that we need to come to focus on rescue operations. We have managed to work very closely with the anti-human trafficking unit, especially CID department,; being more strategized and careful was an ongoing process. In a large system, you have the good and bad, both.

  1. What do you think are the present day problems women and children are facing in our society?

    Ans: If I talk about children in the larger context, every young person is apt to use technology. Sometimes, parents and guardians provide access to technology at a young age. While the importance of technology is integral to growth and knowledge but parents should be in close contact to the young children whether they are actually engaging themselves in a safe space online, not to just provide access to the internet without ensuring they are in safe space or not, so communication level is an important element. Institution should also talk about online safety, online exploitation more as an open discussion so that young children don't fall in a space wherein they get sexually exploited or trapped in the vicious cycle of exploitation. Women movement towards work and employment opportunities are growing every day, people are moving across borders considering south east as a place to engage themselves to get better jobs etc but in the process of that it's important for young people to validate whether they are safe or not with a check and balance.

  1. How do you think can citizens help in curbing the human trafficking phenomenon?

Ans: When we look at the problem of human trafficking, it is a worldwide issue and spread across states, districts, continent and countries; especially the emerging trends of cross border is a massive situation heading on to people migrating unsafely. Today, trafficking scenario has changed drastically. It is entering our home through online spaces when young people are becoming more vulnerable and being duped. As citizens I think awareness level that we have about these issues, responding and reporting whenever we feel there is a crime, it becomes the first step towards safety. Secondly, the Institution should discuss online safety in all platforms because young people are being exploited online. No longer to keep quiet, discuss about it, if people are missing from their homes, it is important for them to report to the enforcement. Another aspect is that, young people are migrating in search of jobs where by rule of law it is a right but it is so important to check the credentials of these institutions and validating the information, whether they are truly offering the job or the destination point is safe. These are some important aspects where the work is collaborative in nature and not fall into the trap of exploitation.

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